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SINGERS & INSTRUMENTALISTS:
Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber, Nick Payne, Paul Henry, Big Jim Sullivan, Nicky Scott, Alan 'Sticky' Wicket, Chris Hunt, Dr John
Acoustic guitar, double bass, trombone, harmonica, saxophone, electric bass, percussion, drums, washboard, piano
Van Morrison's collaboration with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber happened in 1998 with a live concert held in Belfast, and the album of the concert was released 1999.
This was a one-off 'feel good factor' album which Van released in the middle of a stream of rather melancholic offerings, and I feel certain that a lot of the brightness of spirit of "The Skiffle Sessions"came from the ever-cheerful Lonnie Donegan's input. Of course I could be wrong about that, but it's how I personally see it.
"The Skiffle Sessions" is mostly a collection of traditional folk songs that have been given a mostly skiffle, and here and there slightly bluesy/rock & roll-ish flavour.
On the inside of the sleeve, there is a small introduction by each of the three main performers individually. Lonnie Donegan's input is mainly speaking of his feelings regarding some of the songs on the album, and delighting at his very first meeting with Dr John (who Van and Chris had already collaborated with many times before). Chris Barber's and Van Morrison's offerings are very similar to one another, in that they both describe their early blues influences; Chris worked with some of the greats early on in his career at the end of the late 1940s and through the 1950s, and Van as a child, listening to his father's vast collection of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy et al music - both Chris and Van later bringing those deep influences into their own music.
"The Skiffle Sessions" comes across to me as a mostly light-hearted get-together of a group of singers and musicians, who belt out some old standards in true skiffle style, enthralling their listeners as they did so.
Please skip to the end if you aren't into track-by-track analysis.
1) IT TAKES A WORRIED MAN (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan)
Wow! This song feels good. Lonnie Donegan takes the vocal lead, backed by soft sax and his own skiffle-style guitar plucking. Somebody performs a lovely little almost cotton-picking guitar solo in the middle, giving the track a slightly country-fied sound, followed by a soft, yet upbeat....almost rock'n'roll-ish sax solo. The last part of the song brings in a bit of cymbal-bashing, which adds a slightly mardi-gras flavour. This is a happy little song, which makes everyone want to clap and/or sing along with it, and is an excellent rendition of a well-known old traditional number.
2) LOST JOHN (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan & Van Morrison)
Backed by rhythmic guitar chords, Lonnie introduces the song and speaks the first few lines. The audience go wild, then Van's voice begins singing the main tune, backed by Lonnie. This is a great, gently rocking track. Lonnie released this himself with his skiffle band back in the 1950s, but on this album, it is done in a much more rocking, 'feel good' style. Van and Lonnie swap around with the vocals, doing a verse each, then joining in together.....their voices blend very well. Lonnie ends the song, after the whole band with instruments and voices sounding a single chord, with a bit of scat singing.
3) GOIN' HOME (Written by Antonin Dvorak - arranged by Ken Colyer)
Van speaks a little (backed by Lonnie's enthusiastic expostulations), introducing this song, together with introducing guest musicians Ken Colyer and Dr John. The song begins with a dirty trombone and gentle piano, sounding very mardi-gras-ish. Van's voice then joins in, singing the main tune, treating us to another gently rocking piece from the Southern States of America, way down yonder! Lonnie then joins in.....take me to New Orleans, take me to that land of dreams, going home yeah yeah yeah! Once again, Van and Lonnie's voices blend, and compliment one another a treat. The middle eight is a delicious blues piano solo which is almost boogie-woogie, almost rock & roll, played by the infamous Dr John. We then have a very bluesy trombone solo (played by Chris Barber), before Van returns with the vocals, joined by Lonnie. The whole thing ends on a one note finale, with a drum roll.
4) GOOD MORNING BLUES (Written by Huddy Ledbetter ['Leadbelly'])
Mmmmm this track is so very nearly almost rock & roll, even though there's just a cigarette paper's distance between its rolling, country-ish rhythm and something from the deep south in the late 1950s. Little tinkles from Dr John on piano which back Van and Lonnie singing in almost rock & roll style, speed this old traditional Leadbelly song up out of the cotton fields, and into the dance halls. There's a brilliant piano solo in the middle, backed by acoustic guitar strumming - making this into another track that you want to clap, sing and dance yourself dizzy to....also ending on a final communal chord, and a drum roll.
5) OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN (Written by William Weldon & Roy Jacobs)
Gentle bluesy slide guitar introduces this song, Van gives us a little blow on his harmonica, then Lonnie joins in - bending his voice as he gives us his rendition of dirty-ish blues. Van's voice then takes the next part.....just as bluesy as Lonnie's. This is a delightful song, a little sleazy, a little bluesy, a little country - gentle, flirtatious and very much from the roots of rock & roll. Someone plays a twiddly guitar solo in the middle, backed by Van gently scat singing - the audience love it, as they give a huge clap and a cheer before Lonnie takes over the vocals again, travelling the range of the scale with his versatile voice. The song ends like the others, with all coming together on a final chord with drum roll, and Lonnie scat singing down to the end.
6) DON'T YOU ROCK ME DADDY-O (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan & Van Morrison)
This is a song which Lonnie Donegan released with his skiffle band in the 1950s, and had a UK singles chart hit with. The guitar work on this track is very fast, upbeat and 100% pure skiffle. Lonnie's and Van's voices blend well, taking the main vocal line. The speed and complexity of the guitar break in the middle eight holds no bounds, and you can hear a washboard being played in the background.
7) ALABAMY BOUND (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan)
A quiet guitar begins this track, with Lonnie's voice singing the first part, with Van joining in, bending his voice superbly. There is quiet, very unobtrusive harmonica in the background with soft, rhythmic drumming. As to whether anybody would love this track largely, I feel, depends on whether they like the song or not. Even if you don't like it though, Van, Lonnie and the band do it good justice.
8) MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan & Van Morrison)
We have a feel-good gentle rocker here. Van takes the main vocal lead, backed by Lonnie, and the instrumentals are very skiffle - rhythmic guitar, washboard and drums. Lonnie then takes over the main vocals backed by Van, and they swap about like this throughout the song. The whole band rock this track up brilliantly, and it's without a doubt, the very best version I've heard of this old, traditional song.....even if it does go on a little bit. The audience seems to love it, breaking into cheers and applause at the end.
9) DEAD OR ALIVE (Written by Woody Guthrie, arranged by Lonnie Donegan)
After a little break where the audience make some almost suggestive-sounding noises, with Lonnie answering...."Sit down you fools, you couldn't afford me" in a mock posh voice, this track begins with him saying "You'll like this one.....you like everything, you're the best audience I've ever had....." Lonnie then launches into this song, backed by a quietly strummed guitar and faint harmonica. Van joins in, harmonising, with this very mardi gras mood song, half speaking and half singing the words. Woodie Guthrie managed to write a very American Civil War type song from the deep South here....well, that's how it sounds to me. The song rolls softly along at a steady, almost marching pace, then ends abruptly on a single cymbal note.
10) FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan)
Lonnie starts this track, saying it's the first song he ever learned. He's backed by washboard and guitar - the audience are joining in with an occasional whistle - and there's a quiet little harmonica in the background. Van begins to sing, taking over the vocals, then he and Lonnie swap back & forth with the main vocal lines. This is one of these tracks which makes me realise that skiffle music isn't just about instrumental style....it's about singing style too. There's a lovely, dirty trombone solo played by Chris Barber in the middle, with a plucked guitar backed by harmonica taking over where he leaves off. Lonnie then picks up the vocals again - speaking some of them rather than singing, then in comes Van once more. Like most of the other tracks on this album, this has a decidedly mardi gras feel - I believe it's the combination of instruments (especially trombone) which creates that feeling. The song ends on a full instrumental chord, and a piece of scat singing by Lonnie.
11) GOODNIGHT IRENE (Written by Huddy Ledbetter ['Leadbelly'] & John Lomax
Now, in the normal way, despite it being written by Leadbelly who's one of my all time heroes, I actually hate this song - but, Van and Lonnie do it justice and make it a little easier to listen to. Van takes the first of the lead vocal lines, with Lonnie harmonising in the background. The song is slow, plodding, with a gentle guitar behind. Lonnie then comes in and speaks some of the words. Though it doesn't state on the list of musical instruments used for the album on the CD sleeve, I can distinctively hear a mandolin carrying the main non-vocal rhythm of this song. Thankfully the track is quite short, as if it were any longer, it'd be painful to listen to.
12) RAILROAD BILL (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan & Chris Barber)
WoooHoooo this starts with a nice guitar twiddle, then Van & Lonnie harmonising the opening lines together - then they carry on into swapping verses, each lead-singing a bit alternately in between harmonising. This is another very very skiffle-ish track that rocks at a nice, steady pace - I feel it could do with something imaginative in the middle though, to spark it up a bit more.
13) MULESKINNER BLUES (Written by Jimmie Rodgers)
This song which we all know and loathe (lol) begins with rolling, almost blue-grass style guitar with Lonnie & Van singing in harmony. I can't quite bring to mind who did the original of this song (could have been The Fendermen??), but what we have here is a distinct improvement. It's just a straight song, with a rather fast plucked guitar (nearly hep-style) in the middle, done in an uptempo roll.
14) THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan & Chris Barber)
Van begins to sing this song in a soft voice backed by quiet guitar and slow, slidey harmonica. Another song that we all know - for those who can't bring it to mind, think of The Beatles' "Dirty Maggie May" song which is a parody of The Ballad Of Jesse James (to be found on the Phil Spector posthumously produced "Let It Be" album). There's not much I can say about this track, other than it being Van and Lonnie swapping lines and harmonising, with a harmonica middle-eight. It's just a straight rendition of an old traditional song.
15) I WANNA GO HOME (Traditional: Arranged by Lonnie Donegan & Van Morrison)
Again and in general, this is not one of my favourite songs. For those who don't recognise the "I Wanna Go Home" title, the Beach Boys did their rendition of it in the mid 1960s, calling it "Sloop John B". It's the same song, but the original and true title is as it is here. Lonnie introduces the song with a giggle, and says "see if you remember this one". A gentle, bluesy guitar backs Van's rather plodding (for the purposes of this song) vocals. The guitar sort of moves back and forth between blues-sounding, country-sounding and almost Hawaiian-sounding. Lonnie's voice joins in and harmonises (on some very high notes) with Van's, then he does the middle-chorus solo, moving downnn the scale to reach some very low notes. Something when Lonnie finished his solo bit made Van and the audience laugh, and it takes Van a few seconds to compose himself before he starts to sing again. The song just plods on, and ends on a high, almost falsetto note from Lonnie.
Well, who would have thought that one day, the now late Lonnie Donegan and Van Morrison could easily collaborate on what is a very enjoyable album to listen to?
There is none of the "Van wistfulness" present in any of the above tracks, as they are all either traditional or written by somebody else, and it was intended to be an exercise in blues and skiffle music, not a chunk out of Van's life told in song.
When "The Skiffle Sessions" was first released and during a few months afterwards, I came across a few people who though ardent Van fans, were embarrassed to say that they'd thoroughly enjoyed this album, largely because it was Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber, and skiffle music. I spent a while trying to explain the connections between skiffle, boogie, blues, country, rock & roll and rockabilly - and that even here and there a little gospel can creep into those closely linked genres - plus, it is where rock & roll's and the roots of Van himself lie. Most of these people gradually begin to lose their shyness about admitting to liking something heavily featuring Lonnie Donegan once they began to see how music links up, evolves and one thing leads to another.
Though this album is marketed as one primarily by Van Morrison, the most prominent performer/musician on the whole thing is Lonnie Donegan - the last major work before his sad death two years later. Van and Lonnie's voices blend very well, and they sound as if they're having a lot of fun with the rest of the band, with the audience being carried along by the easy, positive mood of the whole show.
If you love 'feel-good', easy rolling good time music, you'll love 'The Skiffle Sessions'. There is a fair bit of audience feedback, mostly in between the tracks, and from the sounds made, it sounds as if they are thoroughly enjoying the whole concert.
This album, along with most of Van's other work, is still widely on sale. The cheapest I've seen it in the last few weeks was on EBay for as little as £6, and the most expensive was for £22 (seen at that higher price on several different CD/DVD album online retail outlets).
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 It Takes A Worried Man
2 Lost John
3 Goin' Home
4 Good Morning Blues
5 Outskirts of Town
6 Don't You Rock Me Daddio
7 Alabamy Bound
8 Midnight Special
9 Dead or Alive
10 Frankie and Johnny
11 Goodnight Irene
12 Railroad Bill
13 Muleskinner Blues
14 The Ballad of Jesse James
15 I Wanna Go Home
16 Muleskinner Blues
17 Ballad Of Jesse James
18 I Wanna Go Home